Grieving family members seek public release of video after deadly Topeka police shooting
Kansas law allows for Christopher Kelley’s family to see the body camera video taken June 24 when three Topeka Police Department officers fatally shot him during a mental health crisis, saying he charged at them with a knife.
But that’s not enough, Kelley’s family members say.
They want the community to also be able to see that video, they told The Capital-Journal.
Daniel Martin, Kelley’s brother-in-law, questioned why Topeka’s city government has denied three Kansas Open Records Act requests submitted seeking the video’s release, including one by The Capital-Journal and two made on behalf of members of Kelley’s family by Chicago-based attorney Billy Joe Mills.
Mills told The Capital-Journal Tuesday that the city encourages the family to view the video under Kansas Statute 45-254, which allows heirs or their attorneys to have a private viewing of police body cam or dash cam footage.
“However, KSA 45-254 does not appear to allow the family to release the video to the public,” he said. “It also does not provide an excuse for TPD to deny a legitimate KORA request. The family wishes for the public to view and judge the police shooting of Mr. Christopher Kelley. TPD is trying to force a grieving family to file suit simply to enforce a legitimate KORA request made about a police shooting that is clearly in the public’s interest.”
‘Don’t just tell us. Show us!’
Under Kansas law, Kelley’s family has the right to see the body camera video of the officer-involved incident that resulted in his death, said Gretchen Spiker, communications director for the city.
The city is “extremely sympathetic” to the family, said city manager Stephen Wade.
“The footage displays a tragic incident involving a community member in a mental health crisis, who ultimately charged at Topeka Police officers with a knife, resulting in his death,” Wade said. “We are eager to help the family and have tried on multiple occasions to make it easy for the family to view this footage.”
But no members of Kelley’s family have asked the city to show them the video since August, when a family member made arrangements to see it but canceled the appointment before it took place, said city attorney Amanda Stanley.
Daniel Martin, the husband of one of Kelley’s sisters, Tiesha Martin, wasn’t certain Tuesday which family member that may have been.
Spiker said Thursday the city was actively working with an attorney retained by Christopher Kelley’s family to schedule a viewing of the body-worn camera footage.
“The viewing has not yet been scheduled, but is expected to occur soon,” she said.
The Martins joined Kelley’s father, his son, three other sisters, two nieces and a nephew Tuesday to talk to The Capital-Journal. They brought a photo of Kelley in his uniform when he was a Marine Corps lance corporal.
Daniel Martin said the city should have released the video to the public by now, considering Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay announced last month that the officers acted justifiably and wouldn’t be subject to criminal prosecution.
“Well, let the video match his word,” Martin said. “The only way to validate Kagay’s justification for the shooting of Christopher is for the police to operate transparently and publicly release the video to the community. This way, we can form our own opinions based on the facts of the video and not solely on the words of (Kagay).”
Tiesha Martin added: “Don’t just tell us Christopher’s death was justifiable. Show us!”
‘Outrageous and disturbing’
Kelley’s family has been in contact with Mills, of Chicago-based Firm Equity, which twice saw the city deny Kansas Open Records Act requests he submitted seeking body camera video linked to Kelley’s death, Daniel Martin said.
Mills told The Capital-Journal the city denied his first request Sept. 16, saying the video wasn’t public information at the time because the circumstances involved were still under review by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Mills said he submitted a second KORA request after Kagay announced Sept. 23 that the KBI review was complete and Kagay had concluded the officers acted justifiably.
Police legal adviser David Huckabee denied Mills’ second request in a letter dated Sept. 28, saying the Kansas Open Records Act shields the videos involved from public release because they are personnel records and criminal investigation records, their release could potentially interfere with prospective law enforcement action, their release could put unspecified people in danger and it could be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
“Most brazenly, they state, ‘The disclosure is not in the public’s interest.'” Mills said. “As I responded by email to their letter, ‘Police brutality has proven over the last decade to be one of the most important issues of public interest, generating countless media reports, protests, and lawsuits.’ Their logic is outrageous and disturbing.”
Kelley’s family doesn’t have Chicago attorney Mills on retainer
The Capital-Journal received a similar denial letter Sept. 28 in response to a KORA request it had made seeking the body camera video.
The city’s arguments lack merit, said Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney and president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, who addressed the city’s arguments one by one for a Capital-Journal article.
City attorney Stanley said Tuesday she told Chicago-based attorney Mills he personally doesn’t have a right to view the body camera video privately, after he acknowledged to her that Kelley’s family doesn’t have him on retainer.
Daniel Martin said Mills suggested to family members that he’d need to see the video before he could make a decision about whether to represent them.
Meanwhile, Wade said, the city is conducting an administrative review of the incident, which began on Monday, Aug. 26, the first business day after Kagay’s announcement of his ruling.
The review will take 30 days, Wade said.
“The city, until that review is completed, will not release the video to the public,” he said. “Once that review is concluded, we will contemplate the rights of privacy for all individuals involved and decide whether to release.”
Here’s Topeka law enforcement says happened
Kelley, a Black man who struggled with mental health issues, reportedly trespassed on BNSF Railroad property, threatened a BNSF employee with a knife, then began cutting himself with the knife before police arrived about 9 a.m. June 24 at the scene near S.E. 4th and Holliday, Kagay said.
He said officers set up a perimeter, tried to negotiate for roughly an hour and fired nonlethal projectiles that struck Kelley, who disobeyed their commands and continued to occasionally cut himself with the knife.
About 10 a.m., Kelley screamed and charged with the knife extended over his head at police, and was shot by three officers, Kagay said.
An autopsy showed Kelley had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system, he said.
The officers’ names haven’t been made public.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation investigated circumstances of Kelley’s death, then forwarded a report to Kagay’s office.
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 213-5934 or email@example.com.